Fire With Fire (On the 2011 Fight of the Year)

1. A Strange Resonance

There are certain fights that have a strange sort of resonance with boxing fans, at least if one has ever stopped to carefully consider the many objections to such violent spectacle as well as what makes the sport so thrilling. The strange resonance to which I’m referring is comprised to a sort of dual reaction one has to certain fights, including many of the classics. The most enjoyable fights are brutal and bloody. They may end in a violent knockout or continue as an unrelenting slugfest for as many as twelve rounds, formerly as many as fifteen rounds. We love them. We’ll re-watch them and never stop talking about them.

On the other hand, these are the fights that remind us that boxing is a sport built on a set of rules almost horrifying in their simplicity. Unlike football or hockey, where the most brutal aspects of the sport are incidental to other objectives, brutality is indeed the objective of boxing. There is no puck to put into the net or ball to run into the end-zone. There are no teammates or goal posts. The sweet science is merely two men confined to an enclosed area with no weapons other than their own strength, skill, and will to triumph. The more power shots that land, the more knockdowns that take place, the more blood that is spilled, the more we know that the infliction of harm is the very purpose of this cruel profession.

In so many years of watching the sport, I have yet to succumb to any of the moral objections to boxing that posit the sport as barbaric and violent, serving only to inflict mental and physical damage upon its participants. I know that these arguments are valid and may contain a grain of truth (mind you, they are valid for nearly every sport and many other activities), but I’ve never stopped watching. Perhaps there is some element of a primal love of violence that remains from a time prior to our establishment of moral principles.

If I can take the great man out of context, Nietzsche’s lament for the loss of admiration for the expression of strength perhaps hints at the reasons for our adoration of such displays of raw power between two competitors, which harken back to a time when violence was ubiquitous. Indeed, we are well aware that early versions of combat sports served as preparation for battle and hunting at a time when such things seemed perpetually necessary.

The instincts and customs of our ancestors may just be calling out to us when we bask in the glory of competition. We may very well nod in agreement at Nietzsche’s claim that, “[t]o demand of strength that it should not express itself as strength, that it should not be a desire to overcome, a desire to throw down, a desire to become master, a thirst for enemies and resistances and triumphs, is just as absurd as to demand of weakness that it should express itself as strength.”[1]

2. Fire With Fire

Once again, the most memorable pugilistic contests, each of which could merit an entire write up on their own, are such displays of raw power, of fighting fire with fire, of shameless feats of both mental and physical strength, in some cases bordering on downright stupidity – recall the refusal of Antonio Margarito’s corner to throw in the towel against Manny Pacquiao.

The best modern example of such a contest, at least in my personal view, and such things are wildly subjective, was the first chapter in the trilogy of fights between Micky Ward and Arturo Gatti. One of the most searing omissions of the Fighter, an otherwise fine film, had to have been the failure to include Ward’s three fights with Gatti, the last of which would be Ward’s swan song and would establish both fighters as legitimate claimants to the title of “blood and guts champion of the world.” [2]

Neither were necessarily top ranked contenders, but they were well matched in terms of style, ability, and physical makeup, and it is  often styles that make a fight great. Ward and Gatti, however, did not so much engage in fights as in outright brawls. Neither counterpunched much or took the time to poke holes in the defence of the other, opting instead to unleash a barrage of punches until one fighter tired themselves out, at which point the other would begin their assault. They stayed close, fighting as if in a phone booth, moving only toward one another, and adopting a defensive strategy that consisted of nothing more than a refusal on the part of both fighters to go down and stay down.

Round nine of that first fight, referred to by commentator Emmanuel Steward as the round of the century, best exemplifies the electricity that permeated the entire trilogy.

Ward retired with a record resembling a journeyman, and Gatti too would fade before meeting his tragic demise, but both were legends at the end of their three brawls. In boxing, it’s often less about your final record. Sugar Ray Robinson had losses on his record, as did Jack Johnson. Mohammed Ali continued well past his prime and lost his last two fights. It’s often more about who you beat and how you fought. If you can produce a performance that best exemplifies both the thrilling and cruel nature of boxing, your respect from fans is cemented.

3. Fight of the Year, 2011

Thanks to the web, the treasure trove of media available to sports fans is practically unlimited, offering not only a well preserved archive, but access to events that one could not see any other way. Since most coverage in major sports journalism outlets is confined to the big fights, though there are some specialists with a deeper focus on the current goings on in the sport, there has often been much going on in the world of boxing that escaped our attention altogether.

This has changed over the course of the last decade or so, and this year many boxing commentators are recognizing that the fight of the year occurred on another continent between two 105 pound competitors of whom even die hard fans had no knowledge, myself included. It did not air on television in North America, but the web, with the help of fans, made damn sure that we saw it.

Akira Yaegashi and Pornsawan Porpramook’s battle for the WBA minimumweight title is absolutely worthy of designation as fight of the year precisely for that aforementioned strange resonance that it produces in the viewer. The build to savagery is slow and breaks out in full force in the seventh round, but every round before seems to show two men willing to do any and everything to win. The punches simply never stop coming and no matter what onslaught either man faced, he never seemed willing to back down. The second one fighter put the other on the ropes, it only seemed to send him into a blinding fury of aggression as he tasted the possibility of obliterating his adversary.

In the flurry of shots fired every round, it became the type of fight that that was almost impossible to score. At points, I wondered why I even bothered trying to keep score. I thought to myself as the contest progressed that if a decision from the judges would determine the winner, then I didn’t care how it was scored.

There was a slight difference from a Gatti-Ward style fight in that an incredible amount of technical skill was on display. Yaegashi deftly used the whole ring to control the momentum and pace of the fight and moved between headhunter and body puncher as was needed. Porpramook took full advantage of nearly every opportunity to counterpunch. It wasn’t just a street fight, but a full and proper display of athletic prowess and talent.

Nonetheless, it was brutal. For a casual fan or someone with no exposure to the sport, it could have turned that person into a lifelong lover of the sweet science or a vehement crusader against its violence. For me, the sheer thrill once again overrode any inclination that I might have had to look away, whether from this fight or from the sport as a whole. Perhaps I’ve yet to move into the age of morality that Nietzsche so laments, but I’m quite happy here.

Enough of my rambling now. Enjoy.


[1]  Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York, Vintage Books, 1989), pp.45

[2] The term “blood and guts champion of the world” was used by Michael Buffer in his introduction during the third Gatti-Ward fight.

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  1. This fight is so damn good I’m forced to have a couple drinks while watching it.


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